Monday, December 12, 2005

A Journey to the Edge of the World

Published in Outlook Traveller Oct 2005 as "Andamans: Desert Island Days"

“Let’s go take a close look at that crocodile,” Neel suggested and Harry and I agreed gamely. We were at the Wandoor jetty, South Andaman watching a seven-foot salt-water crocodile swimming sedately in a narrow channel between Alexandra Island and us. Neel revved the zippy inflatable boat straight towards the croc. Harry and I thought he was giving us an adrenalin rush and we were determined not to react. When it seemed that we were imminently going to land on top of the crocodile I began squeaking incoherently. But it was too late. The astonished saltie (not a savory but the affectionate name by which croc specialists call the salt-water crocodile) dived underwater as we zoomed up to where his head had been. “What are you doing?” I spluttered. “What if the croc had bitten through the boat?” He couldn’t believe a croc would do that. He had obviously not read those infamous tales of salties biting propellers and outboard motors in Australia. The Andaman saltie hadn’t either, so why was I getting worked up about it, Neel asked. I made a mental note to lend him my book of croc attacks for bedtime reading when we got back home. That should enlighten him, I decided, but it would have to wait. We were preparing for an expedition to South Sentinel Island, a tiny uninhabited island near Little Andaman Island and this near-disaster was the first field test of the rubber boat before we packed it.

The daylight trip would take us to the island at low tide when it would be too shallow to pull up the long massive dugout canoes, Rom had declared after peering for a long time at the Bay of Bengal pilot book. So the plan was to anchor offshore and use the rubber boat to ferry the gear and people to land. Harry, Neel and I had spent the day stocking rations, organizing barrels to carry fresh water (there was no fresh water on the island), diesel for the two motors and petrol for the generator to charge batteries. Harry had just single-handedly managed to obtain permits after two months of running around and there was no time to lose.

South Sentinel is one of the two outlying islands west of the Andaman chain. If you are looking at a map, the little dot way off the west coast of Little Andaman is the island we were headed for.

That night while we sat on the wooden deck of the kitchen, swatting mosquitoes and sipping whisky, I overhead Neel deep in conversation with Saw Pawng (whom everyone called Uncle), our 80 year old chief of the boat crew. Uncle was appalled to hear that the world was round and not flat. Splendid! Here was our boat captain who thinks he might fall off the face of the world if he kept going straight on. I hurriedly bid everyone goodnight before Neel began bringing Uncle up to speed on the scientific developments of the last two centuries. What Uncle didn’t know hadn’t hurt him and what I didn’t know that Uncle didn’t know, couldn’t hurt me.

Rom arrived the next day. After reviewing the food, water, fuel, gear and people, Rom had to ask Neel to stay. “You drink too much water, man,” he tried to explain to his dejected brother. Through the day Neel guzzled as much water as his high metabolism sweated out. But having swung into the spirit of adventure, to be grounded must have been disappointing.

While packing the two canoes with everyone’s bags, rations, and equipment, Uncle was muttering something about the world being flat. Oh, how I wish Neel had not gotten this bee into Uncle’s bonnet! Once everything was strapped in place Uncle shouted “Chaabo!” (Let’s go!), the Karen call to adventure. “Remember the world is round, Uncle!” shouted Neel with a wink and a wave. I glared darkly at Neel while Uncle hesitantly brought his hand up to wave and I swore I was going to give him the goriest croc attack book on earth. With pictures of body parts.

Along with us five mainlanders were six Karen. The Karen were brought over from Burma by the British in the 1920s to work in the islands. Two of them were in charge of each canoe – one operated the motor and the other bailed out water that seeped in. Traditionally the Karen rowed and poled their way around the islands until one day an enterprising Karen did something ingenious – by patching together a regular 8 hp Kirloskar water pump motor, a length of pipe and a propeller, he had a motor boat. Overnight the motorized dugout canoe became the most efficient vehicle on the waters of the Andaman Sea. Before we teamed up with the Karen, we used fiberglass and trawler boats but if something went wrong (and it always does) in the high seas, there was no one to call. Even on dry land, it was pretty hard to find a resourceful mechanic to fix the problem. But with the dugout canoes, the Karen could pretty much strip the pump down and put it back together with the efficiency of a drill sergeant.

The thoughtful Karen had built a tarpaulin shade for us wimpy mainlanders. If it were not for this shade, we would have all begun shedding our skins in a couple of days from sunburn. As we sat cooped up inside hiding from the blistering sun, the Karen were having the time of their lives. These normally taciturn guys became lively and agile when their canoes skimmed the waters, the sun beat down on their bronze weather-beaten skins and the wind whipped their straight hair away from their faces. Schwete, the most reserved of the Karen, transformed into an exuberant whooping cowboy. With the two canoes racing at full speed nose to nose, Schwete nimbly jumped from one boat to the other to pass the thermos of tea. Just when I thought, “Phew! Did you see that?” he stood straddling the two boats, a foot on each canoe, as they knifed side by side through the azure blue waters. If you thought Kevin Costner was cool in ‘Water World’ you should have seen this kid!

Five hours later, with the sun directly overhead we lost sight of land; we were out in the high seas with no landmark, no stars, nothing to indicate which was north or south. Neither Uncle nor Saw Pamwe (the other boat captain) had a watch, compass or any technological gizmo to consult. Had somebody brought a compass? The thought hadn’t occurred to anyone. I knew we were heading southwest, but the crux of the issue was what degree southwest were we? If we went too south-westerly we would zip between North Sentinel and South Sentinel islands without catching sight of either and make landfall in Sri Lanka or worse, Madagascar. Uncle just bit into his beedi and puffed, his eyes fixed on some imaginary spot on the horizon. Was he going to take us to South Sentinel or to confirm that the earth was flat? There, out in the middle of nowhere, without the familiar profile of land anywhere, I began to question the sanity of this enterprise. The heat and humidity clogged my brain and soon I was asleep.

I woke up gasping for fresh air; the foul fumes of exhaust filled my lungs. We were chugging slowly and I looked around for an explanation. We had arrived. South Sentinel looked like an island should – waves beating on the sand with the calm rhythm of the world’s heartbeat, the white coral sand, the cool green of the forest beyond. The only thing that spoilt the picture was a lighthouse that stuck out like a middle finger above the forest. The engine finally went dead and we anchored. It was about 3 pm. The inflatable boat was pressed into service and the long process of unloading began. It was well past dusk when we finished. The once pristine beach was pulped and churned by human footprints. There had been a water monitor track on the beach when we had first arrived but it was quickly obliterated.

In the meantime camp was being made. While dinner of rice and dal was cooking, we bathed in the sea and used one mug of fresh water to rinse off before toweling dry. Sitting around the campfire, eating the most delicious dinner, watching the phosphorescent waves gleaming in the dark and smelling of insect repellent in the air was enough to make anyone sigh contentedly.

We woke up early the next morning to see enormous tractor tracks up and down the beach – nesting green sea turtle tracks. High above us a pair of white-bellied sea eagles wheeled over the island, like guardian angels. After a quick breakfast, everyone kitted up and set off for a walk into the island. It’s a tiny island, only 161 ha. Along the forest edge the sand moved with millions of hermit crabs of varying shapes and sizes and the much larger land crabs of different colours from brown, orange to yellow. Tall pandanus trees shielded the forest from the strong winds blowing off the ocean. The further inland we went, the taller the trees rose. The soil was sandy and several trees had keeled over. We found pieces of broken coral, seashells and other relics of a time long ago when this island was merely a patch of ocean bed.

Smack in the middle of the island was a large circular clearing with an island of beautiful palms and tiger ferns. It looked as if someone had manicured it to make it look just right. We soon found out why the area was clear – it was a tidal swamp. When the tide came in, seawater seeped up from underground and filled the clearing. When the tide went out, the pond drained to become a clearing once again. We found several enormous coconut crabs, the largest land crab in the world, milling about in the clearing. While we stood there silently taking in the vision, I felt something tickle my ankle. It was a coconut crab checking me out, its antennae quivered with unfamiliarity. Schwete tactfully grabbed the crab behind and held it up for me to take a good look. These purplish 10-legged creatures probably have seen so few humans that they were curious.

After dinner I read my notes on the coconut crab. It is eaten as a delicacy throughout its range – islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But no Indian has developed a taste for it yet and it seemed to be thriving here. It grows to a phenomenal two feet in length, and weighs as much as four kilograms. It is known to climb coconut trees, chop the fruits letting them fall down, walk head first to the ground and hack through the fruit with its pincers to get to the tender flesh inside; but not always in that order. The most far-out thing about these crabs is this - their breathing organ is a cross between gills and lungs and it can breathe only when the organ is wet with seawater. So a pair of legs is totally dedicated to keeping this organ clean and moist. The notes also said that if you wanted to see these crabs during daytime on Christmas Island or any of the other islands of the Pacific Ocean, you had to dig them out from burrows. Obviously whoever wrote the paper hadn’t been on South Sentinel. Here, they come over to nibble at you curiously in broad daylight!

In the morning Harry hauled out a massive wooden chest. Were we going to play ‘treasure island’? Harry replied it was for keeping coconut crabs. The Port Blair zoo wanted us to bring them a pair of the crabs. Wasn’t it overkill? Harry replied, “The box has to be strong. Otherwise, the crabs will rip their way through.” I pursed my lips and considered the chest. It seemed unlikely any living creature could get out of there – it was solid. I mean, REALLY solid. It took four people to haul the chest and we headed off into the jungle.

Rom caught the first coconut crab and tried to put it into the wooden chest. By the time he got done, his hands was gouged and scratched by its sharp claw-like legs. We searched long and hard and could find no more signs of the water monitor lizards. This was a big disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing the lizards foraging in the coral reef at low tide as Harry had described it. Back at the camp we tried to feed the crab the contents of a chicken egg. It ate some but got distracted and tried to crawl into the camera lens instead. “It’s spooked,” said Rom. To me, it seemed hungry for media attention. While I was playing with the crab, a team headed off into the jungle to continue the hunt for monitor lizards. I went to get something more interesting for the crab and found some dried salted fish. I rinsed off the salt and returned to the crab only to see that it had completely mangled the steel tumbler I had been drinking tea from. I shuddered at the thought of what it could have done to my Achilles tendon on our first meeting. I promptly decided to return him to his box – a job easier said than done.

The team came back with the news that they had sighted about 14 lizards in a wet marshy area but they acted skittish, dashing off in a split instant. We began wondering what could have caused this nervousness – the lighthouse builders, poachers? We decided to visit this marsh again the next day.

We approached as silently as we could. No lizards. It was to be expected but still very disappointing. Rom had an idea that if we constructed a hide near the marsh and waited quietly, we might see some lizards. So the Karen set to work and I volunteered to stay in the hide. Coconut crabs and land crabs scurried busily all around me in the dry leaf litter. White-eyes flitted close by. Parakeets filled the air with their raucous cries. I waited and watched but nothing exciting happened - unless you count a coy pigeon making a sorry example of a nest exciting. Perhaps the lizards were still edgy from yesterday. It’s amazing how tired and hungry one gets sitting immobile in a hide.

Within a few days, we were low on water and Uncle had to go to Little Andaman’s Bumila Creek to get more water. The sea had been getting rougher everyday and he had a hard time getting into his canoe; two of the younger Karen boys had to hoist him up. Just then Harry discovered that the captive coconut crab had escaped. I thought he was kidding – that box was a little Fort Knox. But it was true, the crab had pried the edge of the chest apart fibre by fibre and had made a hole big enough to escape. That was the end of that idea.

One morning I climbed up the lighthouse to get an “aerial” view of the island. A series of metal ladders welded to the metal structure shook in the strong wind. Even as I was climbing to the treetop level, my knees were trembling and I forced myself not to look down. But once I surfaced onto the platform atop the structure the magnitude of the view took my breath away. Even as I was trying to figure out the various features of the island sprawled around below me, something white in the sea caught my attention. It was an albino green sea turtle. Knowing fully well that none would believe me, I managed to get a rather shaky video shot of it to be produced with flourish later. A few months later, we were to discover that white green sea turtles were not a rarity at all. They come up with fair regularity on the Sri Lankan coasts and a couple of sea turtle hatcheries there maintained a few in captivity. But nevertheless, it was exciting at that moment to witness a living specimen of aberrant nature. “What a fantastic place!” I wrote mundanely in my journal at a typical loss for words.

Towards evening we began to get worried. There was no sign of Uncle and the Karen who had gone to fetch water. They were supposed to have been back by afternoon and we were down to the last bucket of water. Although we weren’t extravagant with the water, we cut down our consumption further, drinking a sip only when we had to. But we decided to wait one more night before getting worked up about it.

We lazed in the shade of the camp, not wanting to work ourselves into a sweat when we were low on water. The sea eagles resumed their vigil over the island, their lonely calls piercing the air. It was mid-morning when the canoes came into view as they rounded the limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the island. A collective sigh of relief went up. The river mouth in Little Andaman had been pummeled by tall waves, Uncle said, and they had risked being drowned when they attempted to get out into the sea. The boys apparently hadn’t want to leave in such choppy waters but Uncle knew we would be really low on water and was determined to make it. As we sat on fallen logs hungrily eating fried fish, a school of dolphins came bounding like a lot of marine puppies. They had hemmed a school of fish against the shore. This was the life – good food, pristine beach (well, almost), good sleep under the purest skies and lots of fresh water. That’s when I heard Uncle talking to Uncle Pamwe in Karen. I couldn’t understand their language but I knew instantly what they were talking about. Uncle’s hands were saying something like “Did you know that the earth is round?” I smiled. Uncle may not know these larger facts of life but he sure as hell knew where every speck of island, inhabited or uninhabited, was around these parts and that is all that mattered.

At sunset one evening, Johnny went diving under the surf and came up to present me a big gorgeous live cowrie. I was touched but tried to tell him gently that I don’t like to take live animals. I felt bad rejecting his present – he was only trying to give me a gift in return for the cap I had given him earlier.

The next day we headed back to Wandoor. The sea was calm and the canoes could be brought ashore. This made loading so much easier and quicker. Within half an hour almost everything was on board. After ten days on the island, I looked forward to a clean bath but I was also sad that we were leaving. We skirted North Sentinel and the sharp eyes of Uncle spotted a couple of Sentinelese on the beach. Dolphins raced alongside us until they got bored – our boats were too slow for the speeds they were accustomed to. It was dark by the time we dropped anchor at Wandoor. We discovered Neel had in the meantime vacationed on Havelock Island so he couldn’t guilt-trip us. After all these days of washing in the sea, my hairbrush was thick with greasy dirt and my hair was limp and sticky. I got most of the gritty fine sand out of my hair that evening and cherished the privacy of a room for the first time in a long time.

After dinner when Neel got started off on how the earth revolves around the sun all of us burst out laughing. Uncle looked puzzled for a moment and he laughed too. He had been right all along – Neel had just been pulling his leg.

Epilogue: Schwete died tragically of cerebral malaria after a trip to the Nicobars at the age of 21. The tsunami pushed the island up about a metre out of the sea but the beach we camped on is underwater while the inter-tidal pools are now permanently exposed. No one knows yet if the coconut crab population was affected. If the accretion of beach on other islands is anything to go by, a beach may soon start forming on South Sentinel again. Someone should make the trip out there and check it out.

The King Cobra and I

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XX No. 4, Aug 2000 and The Hemispheres Vol.1, No. 2

We were filming two male king cobras engaged in combat in the damp forests of Agumbe when one suddenly turned and headed straight for Rom. Caught on the wrong foot and unable to move, he chose to stand still. The king cobra shot past between his legs and just as everyone was beginning to draw a relieved breath, the snake turned around behind him and latched onto the seat of Rom’s jeans. In the absolute silence, everyone could hear the sound of its teeth ripping through the fabric, besides their own hearts thudding in their ears. And then the snake was off again, to continue with his battle without even grazing the skin of Rom’s posterior. Rom still maintains that it was his Levi’s that saved his ass!

When Romulus Whitaker and I decided to work together on a film, the subject was already chosen. Novices in the field, we had to get a toehold in the business. The only creature we could think of that nobody else had made a film on, and was so unique that only we would be in a position to pull it off, was the king cobra. It was also the only creature at that time on which Rom wanted to make a film. His relationship with the species stretching over a long period of time and he has had several encounters with them in the wild and in captivity. So 'King Cobra', the film, was woven around these episodes.

There were a few notes on its courtship behaviour written by colleagues in the Madras Snake Park and others in U.S. zoos. But aside from this, there was precious little we could find. So we had to start from scratch. We put the word out all along the Western Ghats from Goa to Kerala that any information on their nests. The two years that followed was a period of intense education for me. It was my first encounter with the wilds of India, let alone king cobras. We stayed with friends or at forest bungalows in various National Parks; where hospitality was unavailable, we camped in the forest. To me, the last option was very unnerving. Spooked by stories of other people's misadventures, my perception of the forest was of a frightful monster ready to grab me when I was the least aware. My uneasiness probably irritated Rom no end but he was accommodating. The worst time (yet the best in hindsight) was when we camped in the forests of Agumbe.

Agumbe, a haven for creepy crawlies

Agumbe is the wettest place in South India and Rom had caught king cobras there in the past. In his early days he would camp regularly in these damp forests looking for snakes. On one such trip, he saw a black snake tail disappear into a thick bush and instinctively dived for it. Even as he almost shattered his elbows with the fall, his mind was telling him that it was a rat snake until an apparition of a spreading hood growled over his sprawled body. There wasn't much he could really do considering the position he was in, so he let the king cobra's tail go. That was the beginning of Rom's life long fascination with the species.

Rom considers Agumbe the 'king cobra capital'. To me it just seemed like 'leech capital'! We were camped there for a couple of days living on instant noodles and smoke flavoured tea (which we strained through our butterfly net). We saw little of any of the larger animals, the largest we saw was a barking deer; but we saw lots of smaller things - frogs, slugs, scorpions, millipedes of all shapes and sizes, huge tadpoles that don't metamorphose into frogs, insects, birds like the Shama and Malabar trogon. It was great yet eerie to not see any humans about. The place was so damp that anything dry became wet in minutes. Coming from the city as I did, the dankness and the closed canopy of the forest made me intensely claustrophobic. I hankered to see dry open stretches of land, like tea estates, much to Rom’s disgust. But the many different and new things we were seeing kept me going in what seemed like miserable circumstances.

It was a voyage of discovery for me - watching Rom dig into an embankment to reveal the largest spider I've ever seen - a mygalomorph tarantula the size of his hand. From watching the flight of flying lizards to hearing the chirpy, quiet human-like calls of the lion-tailed macaques in the canopy, I had travelled miles from being a paranoid city animal to being an appreciative amateur naturalist. Now every turn in the path would raise my anticipations of seeing a king cobra. But we saw very little of king cobras in all this time but at least we were exploring their domain - that was our excuse for being in these forests for the length of time we did.

Meanwhile we were coaxing National Geographic Television to help us make the film. Understandably reticent at first about putting their money on such an elusive subject, they eventually were enterprising enough to support us fully. It took a few months to put a crew together and work out the logistics. We were finally at the brink of what we had so often dreamed of in the last two years. It was January when we began, at the start of the king cobra courtship and mating period.

Royal romance

During this season, the female king cobra lays a trail of scent as she crawls. This scent is potent enough to bring any passing male king cobra under its spell. With his tongue leading the way, he may spend days trying to find the female. The female, however, is wary of the larger male. He could easily eat her if he wanted to. But the scent of the female king cobra has put the male in a specific mode - that of mating. If he is rejected by a defensive female, he will try cajoling her. His style of persuasion might seem ridiculous to us - he butts the female with his head. If she does not relent, he may butt her so violently that she is lifted off the ground. Eventually, after all this attention, the female relents. Her hood spread, head raised slightly off the ground, she glides gracefully away with the eager male crawling over her, trying to get her tail up. This is important because without her co-operation a male cannot effectively mate. Once he has her tail up, he mates with her and they may remain in this embrace for an hour. After that the male goes his way - to meet other females or ...males.

The breeding season also makes male king cobras touchy towards each other. When two adult male king cobras meet, they may engage in a strange dance called 'male combat'. This is what is mistaken for a 'mating dance'. The combat is ritualised like in a judo match - no biting is allowed and the rivals are honest enough to follow the rules without an umpire! The snakes rise up as high as four feet off the ground, twine around each other and attempt to push the other down. The first to pin the opponent's body down to the ground is the winner and they will joust until one prevails. It's not clear why snakes perform this combat dance ritual. It may be over food, territory, females or just excessive hormones working overtime during the breeding period. The struggle can last for hours and the snakes become oblivious to anything else - come rain, shine or even man.

Injurious to health!

What do you do when a snake is really, really close and headed your way? Usually the best thing would be to stand as still as a tree and hope that the snake goes on its way. Most snakes do not have good eyesight. With king cobras, the rule is to retire gracefully and if you can't do that, RUN as fast as you can.

The king cobra comes with a warning - its bite is injurious to health. It has enormous venom glands in its "cheeks" but surprisingly, its venom is less toxic than a common cobra's. However, the sheer quantity of venom a king cobra can inject still makes it lethal. It can inject upto 6 ml. of venom at a time - that's a couple of thimbles full. There's an old anecdotal note from Burma that even talks of an elephant dying from a king cobra's bite. The last known instance of a human succumbing to a king cobra bite in India was 20 years ago when a woman stepped on a king cobra in a tea garden in the Annamalai Hills of Tamil Nadu. But the king cobra's instinctive response to humans is to flee. Even nesting king cobras who have a reputation for aggression are shy of facing humans.

A bird or a snake?

The female king cobra is different from any other snake in the world because she actually builds a nest for her eggs. Consider this, here is a creature with no limbs that painstakingly scrapes together a pile of leaves to lay her eggs in. This amazing event occurs at the threshold of the monsoon. When her time comes, the female king cobra gets very restless and climbs nervously over the surrounding vegetation probably to choose the right site for her nest. Once a place is selected, she loosens the leaf litter by shoving her head under the leaves and pushing them up, thoroughly raking the area. Then she coils around a bunch of leaves and literally carries it in a coil of her body to her nest site. She repeats this many times until she has the base of her nest piled up. She lays her 20-30 eggs on this and then piles more leaves on top of her eggs. The dimensions of the finished nest is about 40 cm high and about a metre in diameter. The whole operation can last twelve hours. Job done, you'd think the exhausted female king cobra would just leave - to rest and find food. But no, a more serious job is just ahead. She will stand guard without eating for the two months it takes for the eggs to hatch. The most she will get is a drink of water when it rains. Her mere presence is enough to dissuade any intruder. If that doesn't work, she will put on a formidable display - hood spread, mouth open and will growl like a dog. That is enough to send even the most persistent intruder off. This behaviour is what gives rise to stories of aggressive king cobras.

Little wonders

When the monsoon catches on seriously, the deluge can batter the nest down to almost nothing. But as long as the centre of the nest is dry with just the right amount of humidity, the eggs are fine. The babies arrive towards the end of the rains when there are plenty of other baby snakes around on which they can feed. They are born with perfect miniature fangs capable of injecting venom but they are so tiny that they can barely penetrate our skin. The thin hungry mother finally leaves them to find food. It is probably just as well because she's a snake eater herself. Left on their own now, most of the baby king cobras will be taken as prey by civets, birds, monitor lizards and other snakes. Only one or two will make it to adulthood.

Deadly mystique

Rising up over its victim, the king cobra strikes down on any part of the body and clamps its jaws in a suffocating grip. It chews on the snake, injecting more venom with every bite until the victim stops struggling. The venom attacks the nervous system so first the lungs collapse, the heart stops beating, the muscles go limp with paralysis and the victim suffocates. Then the king cobra slowly works its way toward the head of the snake, moving its fangs alternately without ever letting the snake go. Once it reaches the head, it begins swallowing. Rows of teeth and the fangs move alternately all the way down the snake's body very similar to the way a sewing machine moves cloth. With the prey fully settled in its stomach the king cobra retires to a convenient place - a tree hole, burrow or a tangle of branches many feet up - for a week if it's a large meal. Every part of the snake is digested - bones, scales and all.

Being the largest venomous snake in the world makes it a formidable creature, but the mystique of the king cobra has a lot to do with its intelligence. There's something uncanny about the way a king cobra looks you in the eye. It's an indescribable feeling, an encounter with a sentient being. It's about making contact with an entity so utterly different from anything one knows and normally relates to. Keepers say that when they open the door to the king cobra cage, the snake is so perceptive of what's going on; it knows whether the keeper is planning to feed it or whether he is just checking up on it. But it is its majestic restraint that reveals its personality. For the six months it took to shoot the film, we were all in such close proximity to king cobras I marvel that no accident took place. And this is more due to the tolerance of the snake than anything else. The more closely we work with an animal, the more we take it for granted. We flaunted our own security protocol several times; each time the king cobra just warned us, mock charging but never carrying it through. This made us respect the creature more than any other.

Looking back now, four films later, 'King Cobra' was probably the most ambitious one we ever made and the risks we took seem foolhardy. The medical protocol turned out to be almost completely worthless. The Thai Red Cross Society is the only place that produces king cobra antivenom serum and we bought a stock of 30 vials from them. Since Rom was already sensitive to the horse serum from which antivenom serum is made, elaborate plans had to be made with local hospitals. We had to make sure they had ventilators and all other facilities to deal with the allergic reaction that his body might go into in case he got bitten and needed the antivenom serum. This allergic reaction called anaphylaxis could be so severe that it could kill him even if the venom did not. We rehearsed what we had to do in case any of us got bitten during the course of the filming and the protocol was fixed on everyone's door for easy reference. A year after the film was made the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine ran tests to see whether the Thai antivenom serum was effective against Indian king cobra venom - the results turned out negative. It was thanks to the restraint and intelligence of this most majestic of snakes that we are alive today to tell the tale.

Epilogue: Most people who've seen 'King Cobra' have said they empathized with a snake like they never have before. This was probably the only film made on a single snake species at that time and we hope that it furthers the cause of rainforest and reptile conservation in India. A year later, 'King Cobra' unexpectedly won an Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement and is the most highly rated film on the National Geographic Channel in Asia.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

In Search of the Mugger Crocodile

Published in Reptiles, Jan 2006

In the summer of 1999, Rom Whitaker, a herpetologist from India and I went to Sri Lanka to look at mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris). Our goal was to make the ultimate film on the mugger. But first, we needed to find a place with a mother load of muggers where we would set up base. Sadly, there were no big populations of crocs anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. Rom had done a croc survey in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s and remembered seeing large congregations of crocs in Yala National Park in the southeastern corner of the island nation. So that’s where we headed.

Yala is a woodsy, dry evergreen forest by the beach. The Park is dotted with pools, ponds and lakes – every one of them man-carved. Around the 9th century, this region was a part of the Ruhunu kingdom, a mysterious civilization of whom nothing is known. These water bodies were excavated then by hydrological engineers to water the huge rice fields. No one knows what caused this kingdom to vanish with no trace. Over the centuries, the forest reclaimed the land and today this sprawling 373,000 acres of forest is known as Yala (or Ruhunu) National Park.

When Sri Lanka became a part of the British Empire, Yala National Park was a Hunting Reserve. Up until the 1950s hunting parties of Europeans and Sri Lankans came here to shoot leopards, elephants, buffalo and boar. Nobody paid much attention to reptiles. In the records of the Park there is a lone entry to do with reptiles: on 1 Nov 1948, a party of 6 had shot 3 crocs, 4 boars and 1 python. The lack of croc references is surprising considering that crocs were everywhere and an easy target for any frustrated hunter wanting to take a pot shot. Or may be they just didn’t think it was worth writing home about!

Yala National Park: The Croc Paradise:

A lot of the waterholes had dried up at the time of our visit. There were about 10 large perennial ponds we concentrated on as all the crocs could only be here. We counted an average of 100 crocs a day during the dry season. In several ponds painted storks hunted for fish with impunity while crocs cruised close by. The birds were ever watchful but there were moments when they were too engrossed in the hunt to pay any attention to the predator close by. It took only a couple of days to fish out a pond. Then the hunters left for fishier pastures. Both birds and crocs looked very well fed and it seemed obvious that the storks and crocs had forged some kind of benign relationship. The birds’ constant probing around in the mud startled some fish right into the jaws of the waiting croc but it wasn’t clear how the deal worked for the storks. May be just the privilege of being allowed to fish in the murky waters. Elephants walked past basking crocs to drink water while buffaloes wallowed in the mud under the seemingly sleepy gaze of the reptiles. Deer were more wary of the tourists than the immobile crocs.

If a croc could stake its territory in a perennial pool, he had nothing to worry about. Others however have to slog – digging deep subterranean bunkers to hang out in. A tracker pointed to a croc tunnel at the edge of a bone-dry pool. A well-worn path led into the tunnel. And what was more - there were old broken eggshells lying around. Where were the babies? How could they survive the summer? The tracker said he had seen the babies come out of the tunnel following their mother every evening as she walked about 500 feet to the nearest water – a saline lagoon. Rom doubted the story but there seemed no other possible way for the babies to survive. This also provided a clue to where the mother crocs were nesting. Rom checked the mouth of every tunnel for a nest. He found 2 nests with about 30 eggs in each which he estimated had been laid a month earlier. The first eggs to be laid would hatch smack in the middle of the dry season like those phantom babies that take a walk with their mother every evening. What would they eat? What about freshwater to drink? This wasn’t making any sense.

All 3 nests were on the banks of saline lagoons. This may be because that is where the big female crocs congregate in the nesting season. We tested water samples from a couple of lagoons for salinity. The laboratory reported that the water was more saline than seawater, with the strong admonition: “remove crocodiles immediately”! Rom thought the young ones had little chance of survival in the very salty water. They were doomed year after year; we never saw any of the previous year's young. (We never found any nests along the river banks nor did we get a chance to probe around many of the freshwater ponds.)

Although the landscape of Yala is flat, a few rocky outcrops stick up. Rainwater collects in pools in the rocks and some of them are deep enough to be perennial. There were croc scats around but if there were any crocs, they made themselves scarce. It must take a determined croc to climb up the steep rocky incline several feet above the forest. Below one such pool we spotted a bleached perfectly preserved skeleton of a 9-foot mugger croc, probably the victim of a bad summer. Close by, at the bottom of one dry pool up in the rocks, were bones of buffalo and croc – a deadly trap with its smooth slippery sides. Once you get in, you can’t get out!

We had to regularly jam on the brakes to allow star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) to cross the road – both on the highways outside the Park and the dirt roads inside the Park. Big rugged females hotly pursued by smaller males; babies no bigger than a hen’s egg! Locals told us that the tortoises were the scourge of their tomato fields and the only way to combat the slow moving “pest” was to dig a trench. Apparently the tortoises fall in and die, unable to get out.

One afternoon while we were driving through the Park a message reached us that the Army wanted Rom to come immediately to the check post. The Army is a constant presence ever since they wrested control of the Park from armed rebels who chased away or killed the Wildlife staff a decade ago. Caught in the rafters above the security guard’s bed was a beautiful cobra (Naja naja). The soldiers, toting semi-automatic weapons, stood nervously by as Rom climbed up to the rafters and with a snake hook coaxed the cobra out of its hideout. What to do next? He couldn’t climb down and he didn’t know what to do with the snake. A quandary the snake solved by diving onto the bed below. Immediately the soldiers scurried out of the room. The cobra, stunned by the fall, conveniently waited until Rom could get it into a snake bag. Later in the evening, it was released into the dry forest several miles away from the check post.

Digging burrows is just one of the two ways the crocs deal with the dry summer. A lot of the crocs hike overland, across the jungle, along pathways they have probably used for several years, to deeper ponds. With the kind permission of the Wildlife Department, we walked along the dry riverbed of the Menik Ganga (with armed guards in case of an elephant or buffalo attack!) and there were croc tracks everywhere on the sand. A major nocturnal migration was happening unseen.

Lunugumvehera National Park: Croc at the end of the tunnel:

Almost contiguous with Yala to the North is Lunugumvehera National Park. It receives far less attention from tourists and the wildlife authorities than it deserves. Seasonal farms have come up along the riverbanks, irrigated by water lifted from the river. The river that runs through the Park is dammed and thus dry in summer so the farmers had gone home. They return only when the rains came and the river began to flow again. The embankments, we discovered, were riddled with big holes -- croc tunnels! A rotting corpse of a seven-foot croc with a stick driven into its skull lay by one of the tunnels. Not a good sign for croc conservation!

Rom devised a method of using long lengths of plastic pipes to measure the depth of the croc tunnels. Put together, the pipes measured 35 feet, but the tunnels were sometimes even longer! Most of these deep tunnels would have been worked on year after year by the resident croc. Rom was also curious about the temperature inside the tunnels and chose to crawl into the largest ones to find out! The burrows were clean and dry inside and several degrees cooler than the outside. I was worried that an agitated croc would charge out, but figured Rom's nose was large enough to handle the confrontation!

As it turns out, some of the tunnels were quite short and while rounding a bend, Rom did indeed come upon the resident croc or two that were just as surprised to see him. But none of the crocs did much more than hiss.

After checking out a fair number of tunnels, Rom wondered if the crocs in tunnels are in metabolic depression (a phenomenon seen in other reptiles that aestivate) – the crocs drop their heart rate to a minimum, reduce their breathing frequency and slow down all bodily functions. By entering a form of deep sleep-like state, they are able to tide over months of inhospitable dry season with no food and no water. When encountered deep inside their tunnels, they re-gained animation enough only to hiss; but couldn’t charge. Measuring metabolic depression is tricky business. By the time you rig the croc with all the probes and electrodes needed to measure their heart beat, brain reaction time, breathing frequency, the croc wakens completely. So, while we can guess and suspect that this is what is taking place, we have yet to quantify and prove it.

One croc, however, wasn’t in metabolic depression. When Rom stuck his head inside the tunnel to see if anyone was home, she came out leaping and hissing, missing his head by inches. Rom nearly tripped trying to put a safe distance between the croc and him. We discovered a nest of eggs at the mouth of her tunnel the next day, obviously the reason why she was awake and alert.

Village crocs:

If you thought “ugly” reptilian predators could only survive in Sri Lanka’s National Parks, you’re wrong. As we were. Local friends hesitantly told us of crocs in the neighboring village canal. Rom jumped up exclaiming “Show me!” Our friend, Shantha, led the way across the rice fields. A tiny copse of coconut trees standing out among the vast plain of rice was where we were headed. As we came closer, we could the see the canal, cutting a swathe through the fields. The copse was totally tangled in thorny vines; access inside was going to be difficult. We were seeking a way in and came upon a freshly dug up croc nest. An egg predator, probably a monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis), had found the nest and worked its way through the gooey contents; the egg shells untidily strewn all over the area. So crocs were there all right. As we came right around the corner we saw the tunnels, about 10 of them, side by side. The Irrigation Department was de-silting the canal and so it was bone dry. We could only assume that the crocs survived on the fish that came washing down with the water when the sluice gates upstream were opened. Rats that thrived on the rice could be dietary supplements. If crocs didn’t get in the way of humans, they could survive just about anywhere in seemed.

The head of a croc was resting at the mouth of one tunnel. It was in trouble. While desilting the canal, the maintenance crew had also widened it, shaving the croc’s tunnel down. It could barely pull its head in and after seeing two dead crocs inside a National Park, we feared for its life.

Discussions with the Wildlife Department followed and permission was given to translocate the croc. A week later, we arrived with the local Wildlife officials and the entire village to move the croc to its new home. Rom slipped a noose around its neck and before hauling it out, warned all the spectators to watch out – the croc could roll, snap and charge. The croc came out as meek as a tame pussycat. It was in metabolic depression! With enthusiastic Wildlife staff helping, Rom tied its jaws with elastic and loaded it onto the back of a pickup. It was released in one of the perennial lakes 45 minutes away, in Yala National Park. It was an hour and half before the croc gradually came to and could walk to the water.

Katagamuwa: The Lake of Crocs:

We were repeatedly told to visit a place called Katagamuwa. Everyone insisted that there were hundreds of crocodiles there. Finally, we shook off our cynicism and made the trip. Sure enough, Katagamuwa Lake had shrunk to that critical size. Any bigger, it would have been impossible to see the crocs; any smaller and they'd have all left for deeper waters. What we saw truly staggered us: Great big mugger crocs merrily fishing for hefty snakehead fish and catfish. It was dawn and the early morning light filtered through the trees, turning the crocs' hides yellowish gold. When the sun came up a bit stronger, these hulks hauled themselves out onto the banks like Europeans sunbathing side by side, soaking up the heat. We counted about 150 big crocs (left out the small ones) in the primeval splendour of the morning light. This was perfect.

From way before dawn, we could hear mugger hunting for fish, frogs and even an occasional stork - splash, crunch, gulp, gulp, gulp. A rosy sliver of sunlight finally tiptoed onto the scene. The bungalow was built conveniently close to the lake where I hung out. Rom, being the intrepid croc man, was ensconced behind a bush near the lake, spying on the crocs. It seemed as if the crocs were hunting systematically, in a group, much the way otters, orcas (killer whales) and dolphins do. The whole bunch of crocs would drive fish from one end of the water body to the other and then launch into them. Then the process would be repeated, across to the other shore: a synchronous smorgasbord. Rom wouldn't give them the benefit of cleverness though; he still maintains that the coordination of the hunt was coincidence. If one croc grabs a fish and creates a splash, the others will come over to investigate whether food is on offer. Then, more splashes follow that attract still more crocs and so on until the entire gang of crocs sail up and down the length of the lake in serendipitous coordination.

Crocs are as much creatures of habit as they are opportunists. By 9 o'clock the crocs were done for the morning and chose to spend a couple of hours basking, the sun revving their body engines to digest the huge meal they had had on a cool stomach. When it got too hot, they lazed in the water, playing politics. If a subordinate showed too much brashness, he had to be cut down to size; if a rival tried to usurp the top croc's place in the hierarchy he had to be trounced. The crocs had another big meal at dusk. They were so in tune with the time of day, that you could set your watch by them. Well, give or take a few minutes!

Through the day there were other creatures to watch. My inventory of animals that visited the lake to drink included: a pair of jackals with two pups, too many peacocks and peahens to count, wild buffalo, spotted deer, gray langurs, toque macaques and a ruddy mongoose – Rom collectively refers to them as “croc food”. And all the while, a pair of fishing eagles surveyed the scene from above. At night a small herd of elephants showed up for a drink causing Rom to come scurrying to the safety of the bungalow.

In all the time we were in Yala we were bound by Park restrictions. The one that we chaffed at the most was the one that demanded that we not step out of our vehicles. Those rules didn't apply to Katagamuwa Lake, as it wasn't a part of Yala at all. It formed the centerpiece of Katagamuwa Wildlife Sanctuary. Every morning we woke up to find signs of wild animals all around the bungalow. An elephant had come within 50 yards of us as we slept in a line of beds on the veranda of the bungalow, dorm-style, lulled to sleep by the buzzing of tree crickets punctuated by an occasional leopard call. We later met a scarred ranger who was dragged off a similar bungalow veranda by a leopard and lived to tell the tale.

Katagamuwa was a good summer bonanza for the crocs, but the water could not have lasted more than a fortnight. All those 150 crocs would then have to hightail it to the river about a mile away. We couldn’t wait around to see this happen and were forever haunted by visions of a long croc migration through the forest. But that will have to wait until a research project that we’re working hard to set up gets going. Until then, Lanka’s mugger crocs will have to wait!

Our survey of crocodiles in southern Sri Lanka lightened our hearts at the prospects of the mugger’s survival. There is no place on the entire Indian subcontinent that supports crocodiles in such numbers as in the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. We think that it is the special brand of Buddhism practiced here that lends an aura of protection to all things, and the dangerous and scaly need it more than anyone else. In this short time we’ve seen more snakes and lizards walking and slithering through people’s backyards than in all the time we’ve spent in India. And these are “creepy crawlies,” mind you. Enhancing an already strong religious sanctity for all life with conservation education will go a long way to securing the mugger crocodiles’ future.

Too Much Monkey Business

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2 Oct 2005

Which town, village and city in India does not have a monkey problem? The monkeys of Delhi are perhaps the most notorious Page 4 regulars when they are caught prowling through the chambers of Parliament, ripping up records and computers. They are not mere destroyers of crops and property; they transmit serious diseases to man– like TB and rabies. Although there are flashpoints of conflict all over the country there is no national policy on how to tackle them. Since all species of monkeys are protected by the Wildlife Protection Act the onus is on Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF) to do something about it.

Over the last six months, a draft action plan was circulated by the MoEF which advocates translocation of troops and sterilization of male monkeys. For years we were under the impression that wild animals will know how to take care of themselves when released in the wild. But we know differently now - studies carried out in recent years have highlighted a range of problems such translocated monkeys face. Young animals are taught which species of fruits and flowers to eat by their parents and other troop members much as a young leopard cub is taught to hunt by its mother. City born and bred simians are like fish out of water in the jungle. How do monkeys that are used to marriage halls and temples spontaneously know the varieties of edible forest fruits? How would monkeys used to dodging dogs and humans know about pythons and leopards? I wasn’t surprised when a monkey trapper employed by the Chennai Wildlife Warden’s office narrated an anecdote of monkeys who returned after traveling at least 14 km. They would rather risk coming back home to abuses and stone throwing than slowly starving to death in the forest.

Although the authorities are aware that translocation merely relocates the problem to another area and doesn’t really address the issue of the monkey menace, they continue to move large number of animals from urban areas to forest areas, from one rural area to another, from one state to another randomly and arbitrarily. For decades the Delhi Municipal Corporation has been moving hundreds of monkeys out of the city every year. In one instance in 2004, about 500 monkeys (comprising several family troops) were trapped in Delhi and released in Pilibhut and Kuno National Park. Today no one knows what became of these monkeys; enquiries reveal that local authorities had no idea that any monkeys were released in these areas under their jurisdiction.

Most translocated monkeys don't survive. Dr.Wolfgang Dittus, a primatologist of the Smithsonian Primate Biology Program, who has studied macaques for the last 30 years says bluntly, “Translocation of monkeys or any wildlife to a national park or wildlife refuge is a clear death sentence for the displaced – it is a political solution, not a biological one. It's a coward's way of killing the monkeys.” Despite researchers worldwide rejecting translocation as a method of solving animal conflict problems, translocation remains the main strategy underpinning the government’s action plan. If we were truly concerned about the safety and welfare of these urban monkeys, we would come up with realistic alternatives that aren’t so cruel.

The Ministry also proposes systematic sterilization of male monkeys. There are fewer males than females in a monkey troop and it might make superficial economic sense to target males. But as Dr. Dittus puts it, the catch is this: it takes just one single intact male that wanders close to a troop of fertile female macaques to impregnate every single one of them. Further, neutering male monkeys is not going to make them any less aggressive towards humans because they want food from us, not sexual favours. Dr. Dittus sums it up by saying that the only way we can control the monkey population explosion is by targeting the females of the troop for sterilization.

But who created the problem in the first place? We did, by willfully feeding free-ranging monkeys. When we feed monkeys we send the message that we are subordinate to them, says Dr. Dittus. So they begin to think that every human should feed them and ones that don’t have to shown their place. That’s when monkeys become aggressive and turn on people. There should be a ban on feeding of monkeys. Dr. Mewa Singh, a primatologist at the University of Mysore, further advocates the use of monkey-proof garbage bins so there is no other food available for wandering freeloaders. While citizens can help combat the problem this way, it is ultimately up to the authorities to come up with a realistic action plan that does not merely shunt the problem around and is humane to the animals.

There is a committed group of primatologists in this country whose expertise should be sought in drafting any action plan. A plan drawn up without their involvement will be scientifically unsound and in the long run it simply won’t work.

Big Cat in the Spotlight

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine February 6, 2005 as "Stealthy Comeback"

Place: Narayangaon, Junnar Forest Division, Pune District, Maharashtra State

Name: Shri Krishna Thorve

Victim: 8 year old, male

Date: 7 Feb 2003

Time: 7 pm

Krishna was playing in the open courtyard of his house. His grandmother was close by washing dishes under a lone light that cast eerie shadows on the wall. The leaves of the tall stalks of corn that surrounded the house swayed and rustled in the cool breeze. Suddenly the power went off and the whole place went dark. As the boy’s eyes grew accustomed to the moonlight, he saw a dark shape move behind the corn. Fear gripped his heart and he ran toward his grandmother just as a leopard pounced on him. While the old lady held on tightly to the child, the leopard’s teeth sank firmly into the boy’s leg. On hearing their cries the boy’s mother rushed out of the house and startled the leopard. The big cat let go and disappeared into the fields of corn as quietly as it had come. Krishna very nearly became another statistic - last year 18 people were killed by leopards in this region.

Until recently most of us, city-types, believed that such stories could only be read in books by Jim Corbett or Kenneth Anderson. Yet in recent months, incidents such as this have been increasingly reported in the media. Have leopards made a quiet come-back since the days when they were hounded out as vermin? Are they re-colonizing the country? Is it a case of conservation success?

Found throughout India, the leopard is the most adaptable of all big cats. It lives in the valleys of the wet tropical rainforests, up in the cool temperate mountains and down in the dry tree plantations of the plains, within protected forests and outside of them. It can slink through any overgrown area without people being wiser. The leopard eats almost anything it can catch - from insects, rats and frogs to larger animals like deer and pig - and will also scavenge for a living. One leopard lived off medical waste dumped in the backyard of a hospital in Valparai before being trapped. This ability to survive on anything that’s available means that the leopard does not need vast forests to maintain itself as does the tiger or lion. The Wildlife Institute of India estimates that there are 14000 leopards in India, of which about 7000 live outside protected forests. The apex predator, the tiger, has been exterminated throughout most of its range, leaving the field open for the stealthy leopard.

After every human fatality, the Forest Department is compelled to do something. The officials went by the book - the Indian Wildlife Protection Act states that the first option in dealing with dangerous animals is capture and translocation. If that is not possible, the Act allows the animals to be kept in captivity and as a last resort, killed.

The typical modus operandi was to trap leopards near human settlements and release them deep inside the forest, away from people. For years this is how carnivore conflict situations were dealt with throughout India. But the problem hasn’t gone away. We hear of more and more leopard problems cropping up all over the country. Contrary to expectations, moving leopards around has only aggravated the problem. Within the last three years, in Maharashtra state alone, 150 leopards were released into Protected Areas after being trapped near human settlements.

We’d like to believe that translocation gives individual animals another chance, but the reality is quite different. What we are doing is putting them out of sight, deep in the forest under the belief that wild animals are resilient and will survive all odds. In India, despite years of translocation, there has been no attempt to follow the released animals to study whether they survive or not. Wildlife biologists, Vidya Athreya, Sanjay Thakur, Sujoy Chaudhuri and veterinarian Aniruddha Belsare (funded by the Wildlife Protection Society of India) studied the leopard problem for a year. They interviewed local villagers, documented every casualty and came up with some clear conclusions. As translocation is usually used to augment the population of endangered animals and, not as a way of dealing with problem animals, the team paid particular attention to this.

About 100 kilometers east of Mumbai is Junnar Forest Division, a vast patchwork of fields interrupted by tree plantations. Natural leopard prey was virtually non-existent here. But domestic animals were readily available - dogs, goats and calves. Leopards were known to take livestock here and human mortality was minimal. The local people did not consider it a big problem, but in the year 2000, the situation turned serious. Deliberate attacks on humans became alarmingly common. Narayangaon, a little settlement in northern Junnar, was the nerve centre of the conflict between man and cat. The team chose this area to do their study.

Vidya and her team tagged 40 trapped leopards with transponder microchips before they were translocated and released. Three of them were trapped again after people were attacked in the new sites. Some of these fresh zones of conflict had no history of man-eaters in living memory. In such situations, when people are suddenly forced to deal with marauding leopards in their neighbourhood, they will often take the law into their own hands and decide the fate of the cats by exterminating them. Already there are reports of many leopards being killed by villagers in retaliation for the losses they have suffered. Typically when wildlife is perceived as a danger and a liability, it compromises the very basis of conservation.

The second problem is that leopards are territorial and when re-located some will try very hard to get back home. In one astounding example of determination and homing instinct, a leopard translocated from its range in South Africa walked 540 kilometers home, the distance between Chennai and Hyderabad. But India lacks such vast wild spaces. Any desperate leopard attempting to return home will only walk into more trouble with more people. Could this be the reason leopards show up in unexpected places like Chennai and Kozhikode?

The other problem to consider is the impact of translocation on resident leopards. Ravi Chellam, a cat expert, says there is no existing suitable habitat (forests brimming with prey, and remote from human habitation) to move problem leopards to. Since all optimum forests already have resident leopards, translocation means re-locating cats into areas staked out by others. In the ensuing conflict for territory, the intruder or the resident is likely to get killed or driven out. If either of them is a mother leopard with cubs, the little ones will be the first victims of such confrontations. When many leopards are released in one area as usually happens, the resident territory holder may have to fight each of these intruders in turn, weakening its ability to hang on to its domain. The resultant upheaval in the leopard population will only escalate the problem for local people.

The graphs that accompany the team’s study are very revealing - the spike indicating leopard releases match a similar spike in the attacks on livestock and man for the same period of time. In Junnar, in the year 2000-2001, the problem was contained within an area of 1400 square kilometers with a casualty rate of 189 head of livestock and 2 humans. Post 2001, when translocations became the norm, the trouble zone nearly doubled to 2400 square kilometers. Mortality rocketed to 348 domestic animals (not including dogs) and more disastrously, 29 humans. The attacks abated only after 62 leopards were trapped and moved out (outsourcing the problem), with the result that now Junnar is nearly a leopard-free zone. Is the only solution to the leopard problem removing every single one of them?

While India’s 35,000 annual rabies deaths hasn't led to a moratorium on stray dogs, leopards are made to pay a heavy price for every misdemeanour from mauling man and lifting livestock to wandering into fields and merely being seen. If we are really serious about this comeback of our wildlife, people also need to make adjustments to their lives and lifestyles. They need to understand that unless a leopard takes to man-eating or livestock-lifting regularly, it should be left alone.

We could make settlements safer by changing cropping patterns but it’s impractical to ask farmers to uproot their sugarcane and tea bushes. Almost all these areas also offer food - livestock, goats, and dogs. People living in leopard country will need financial help to reinforce flimsy mud or bamboo houses against a marauding leopard. Livestock should be securely penned, separately from people, at night. It’s a loss to a villager if a leopard kills a goat but driving it away from its meal only makes it worse. The hungry animal will just go out and kill another goat or calf. Livestock can be insured against leopard depredations so losses can be compensated. Villagers need to be taught how to avoid leopards and what to do in case of a confrontation. A very successful education campaign helped local people in Australia understand how to live with man-eating salt-water crocodiles when their populations bounced back. A similar education campaign, “Living With Leopards” has to be initiated to address this issue.

Rainforest Revival

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine 17 July 2005

We were in the Western Ghats, technically one of the world’s richest hotspots of biodiversity. But instead, a vast manicured matrix of tea estates spread out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Although tea estates are way up in the high rainfall belt, they are biological deserts. Decades of spraying pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides had made sure that not even a frog croaks on a rainy night here. You can see only the survivors – jungle crows, jungle mynas, red-whiskered bulbuls. We are faced with a losing battle – hundreds of hectares of rainforest vanish every year in the Western Ghats. After decades of bad press, a group of estates in the Anamalais, under the banner of Anamalai Biodiversity Conservation Association (ABCA), have joined hands with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) to buck the trend.

Any tea estate has areas of low productivity called “blanks” – where tea cannot be planted. Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), as one of the first participants in the programme, has allocated a few such “blanks” to the NCF to plant with indigenous rainforest trees. A nursery used to raise tea plants has been converted into a rainforest sapling nursery. An amazing 30,000 saplings of 90 species have been raised so far, of which over a dozen species have never before been germinated in a nursery. Another estate in the vicinity, Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) has decided to use rainforest species to provide shade to their 80 hectares of organic coffee and vanilla. As the smaller building blocks of a healthy ecosystem come together, hopes for a better representation of biodiversity have increased. When the habitat is restored, it provides valuable new haunts for native species of birds and mammals. How did this remarkable alliance begin?

As a doctoral student, Divya Mudappa studied the role of fruit-eating mammals in the propagation of forest trees in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) near Thirunelveli. She collected scores of seeds from the scats of frugivorous animals like civets and germinated them to study their growth rates. (As suspected she found that seeds of many species that have passed through the gut of the animals germinated better or faster than seeds from uneaten fruits.) When the time came to wrap up her study she had hundreds of sturdy little saplings ready for life in the jungle. In an abandoned cardamom estate in Sengaltheri (KMTR) Divya and her colleague-husband, Shankar Raman, had noticed that indigenous saplings easily took root in clearings where there was no competition from cardamom. Taking a cue from this observation, Divya planted her 250 saplings in clearings amongst the cardamom and helped speed up the regeneration process. Realizing what it takes to get the forest back on its roots, Divya and Shankar Raman, decided to focus on rainforest restoration. This was just the sort of project that their NGO, the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, wanted to do.

The abandoned estates of Kalakkad-Mundanthurai were in better shape than the estates of the Anamalais. Although the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary surrounded the vast plantations, the last fragments of forest were disappearing. The presence of a vast human population on these mountains threw up a whole gamut of socioeconomic issues. The Anamalais needed urgent attention and the couple moved there, forsaking the relative peace and quiet of KMTR.

Hindustan Lever Limited, a major landholder in the Anamalais had a mandate to protect biodiversity on their lands under their international sustainable agriculture programme. Divya and Shankar held several meetings with the General Manager, D.G. Hegde, about what needed to be done. He had the right ideas – tree planting, starting a nursery – and Divya and Shankar found their first collaborator in the area. All of them agreed on the general principles of the work ahead – to plant a diversity of tree species typical to rainforests of that elevation, and choose pioneer species that do well in open areas which also attract seed-dispersing birds and other animals. HLL provided the infrastructure, labour support and more importantly, access to degraded fragments on its land with the caveat never to convert them to plantations. Now the real work began.

Almost nothing is known about forest trees – germination time, viability of seeds, rate of survival, what to plant in specific site conditions. Divya and Shankar also had to figure out which species would naturally regenerate as “pioneer” species. Under the shade of these pioneers, other more shade loving saplings could be planted. Within the first two years the team planted 5000 nursery-raised saplings of 75 species amongst these pioneers in two degraded bits of land totaling 24 hectares.

With little more than the logistical support provided by HLL, the NCF team managed to prove that a lot could be achieved. Even as the team proved their credibility with the local tea plantation managers, some funds trickled in from the Netherlands Committee of the IUCN’s Tropical Rainforest Programme which helped the restorers consolidate some of their efforts. Over the last two years, with additional support coming from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme in India and from Barakat Inc., USA, the programme is set to expand to new areas. Another local company, Parry Agro Limited, has come forward to restore degraded fragments totaling about 350-400 hectares.

Perhaps the hardest solutions that the team has had to come up with are to meet people’s needs for fuel-wood to prevent further degradation of these fragile rainforests and to find indigenous shade trees for the tea. Tea needs relatively more sunlight than coffee and the exotic silver oak has been the tree of choice to provide the scant shade that the plants need. Collaborating with the United Planters’ Association of South India (UPASI), the team is experimenting with four rainforest tree species - Filicium decipiens, Ormosia travancorica, Trichilia connaroides and Dimocarpus longan - that could possibly replace the silver oak. Should it succeed then they are set to change the profile of tea estates across the Western Ghats.

What has upgrading the quality of the forest in these isolated bits of land achieved? For one thing it can reduce the extent of damage caused by elephants. Throughout the appropriately named Anamalai hills, there are running battles with elephants. By providing shelter during the day and access to other parts of their range these new forest oases help bring down the intensity of the conflict. Conversely, it is the estates that have no such fragments of forest where elephants pose a greater threat. Besides creating habitat for endangered wild animals like the lion-tailed macaques and the great Indian hornbills, native trees are the key to watershed management.

Starting small, by restoring and protecting little bits of degraded slopes, Divya and Shankar want to take on the bigger challenge of planting corridors between these individual bits of forest. While this may not be comparable to a pristine rainforest, its effect will be greater than the sum of all the isolated fragments. Traditionally conservation has focused on National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve forests, but this project goes to show that by co-opting private land owners much can be achieved.

Puk puk Project Belong Papua New Guinea

Published in Herpinstance, March 2004

The plane flew over the lush green forests of Papua New Guinea as it flew across the country. Big rivers snaked dramatically across the landscape draining and sustaining vast swamplands that stretched as far as the eye could see. We were going to check out the most famous of these rivers, the Sepik, for New Guinea freshwater crocs. Rom was visiting PNG after a gap of 23 years while this was my first visit to that part of the world.


The small Cessna that flew us to Ambunti from the coastal northern town of Wewak was chartered from the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship). It is the missionaries who maintain the airstrips and a fleet of aircraft that link the remote parts of the country. There were severe limitations on how much the small plane could carry. Everyone and everything was weighed and the payload calibrated. Half an hour later we landed on a very small grassy strip. One end of the strip led to the river and the other was backed against a hill.

We came to Ambunti especially to meet Alphonse Mapa, the ace croc hunter of the area, who worked with the Wildlife Conservation Department, conducting extension programs in the various villages. As we walked across the village to Ambunti Lodge, people began arriving for the daily market in dugout canoes to sell fish, sago, turtles, cuscus, possums and all else edible. The funny thing about this country is that people travel by boats and planes regularly but few would have seen a car, bus or truck; there were hardly any roads.

By evening we were out looking for crocs. The river was high but there were a few baby crocs around. Alphonse leapt out of the boat and grabbed the first baby croc he spotted. The breeze was cool and kept the mosquitoes away. Next one to leap off the canoe was Rom. There was a brown snake among the reeds and Rom sprung out like a veritable Jack-in-the-box. It turned out (he thinks) to be a brown tree snake, the infamous decimator of the bird fauna of Guam. But of big crocs, there was nary a sign. PNG is a very difficult place to see crocs. The vast swamplands are impossible to travel through and that’s where the crocs hang out. And we knew there were plenty of crocs there.

Alphonse thought we should go up river to the village of the Insect people if we wanted to catch a big fresh water crocodile. It turned out to be a marathon trip.


It was about 4 pm when we reached Swagap, the village of the Insect People. The village is off on a detour from the main Sepik River and we had to negotiate logjams and narrow waterways to get there. There was so much floating vegetation that the outboard motors had to be lifted out of the water and the canoes poled and pushed ashore. It was hard work but we got there finally. The totem of the Insect People is the praying mantis and hence the Lonely Planet nickname. Their woodwork was fine and intricate – much better than the touristy carvings sold in town.

All the village men hung out by the boats. A few guys were hollowing a massive log into a canoe, while others stood around, chewing betel nut, smoking and watching. An old guy sat nearby making a harpoon for hunting crocs. Come to think of it, every canoe moored there had 2 or 3 harpoons. And we hoped to find crocs around here!

At sunset, we all piled into the canoes. Everyone wanted to go so we had to be clear that (a) we wanted someone to guide us and (b) this wasn’t a harpooning expedition. Three boats started out running full throttle toward an ox-bow lake close-by. Ox bow lakes are formed when the river changes course leaving the old bend totally cut off creating a lake. We saw the lead boat with the guide go through a gap among the reeds into the ox-bow lake but it was obviously a tricky shortcut. The drivers of the 2 canoes following struggled to find the way and an hour later we were still stuck there listening to the distant whine of the first boat's motor. Then the second canoe managed to get through but not the third! After several minutes, we got them on the radio and coordinated movements. They had finished looking around in the lake and were coming out onto the river again where we'd rendezvous with them.

They had had some luck – they had spotted a big croc which had disappeared in a splash, plus lots of babies that they didn't want to waste time catching. It was a dismal night but we didn’t give up easily. It was past midnight when we decided to call it quits and headed back to Ambunti.

One of the ways people earn money here is to catch hatchling crocs, feed them up to a good size in three years and then sell them to the large farms. They can earn more money than by just selling the hatchlings. At such a rearing station Rom pointed out 2 wart-like bumps on top of the snout of New Guinea freshies - something no other croc has. So besides the mugger croc of South Asia, here was a croc that dummies like me could tell apart from the other species of crocodiles.

Old man and the river

I asked Alphonse about the biggest croc he had ever killed. The skull of this massive creature presided over the lobby of Ambunti Lodge. Rom estimated it to be a 17 feet long. The story was that the croc began biting boats and killing people. Alphonse’s family lived on the riverbank and he feared for his children’s lives as they canoed to school everyday. So he decided to go after the croc. Someone had already taken a pot shot at the croc and blown its nose off. After several nights of stalking and baiting Alphonse finally caught a glimpse of the croc and harpooned it. He quickly lashed a couple of 20-gallon drums to the rope. That way he could tell, by the bobbing drums, where the croc was, even if it dived to the river bottom. That was about 9 pm. Then followed a monumental struggle between man and beast. Finally at 2 am an exhausted Alphonse felt the dead weight on the harpoon’s stay rope stop yanking and he knew the croc was dead.

More people live in close proximity to large crocs in PNG than anywhere else in the world. People have seen family members being taken in front of their eyes and felt helpless against the power of the master predator. They sought to immunize themselves from the unpredictable attacks by carving the prow of their boats in the shape of a croc, their large drums that were beaten on ceremonial occasions were in the shape of a croc and whole tribes adopted it as their totem animal and scarified their bodies to imitate the ridges on a croc’s back. In fact crocs permeated all their stories, artifacts and way of life. Croc meat was highly prized in the swamplands and a regular staple in their diet.

Then with the coming of European influence, the tribal people were introduced to a market that highly valued croc skins. Croc skins didn’t have any value in the local economy until then and so local people had no concept of what the skin was worth. Rom narrates stories of tribal people selling huge croc skins worth hundreds of dollars for a mosquito net or some worthless trinkets.

Puk puk (Crocodile) Project bilong Papua New Guinea:

In the late 1970s the newly independent Govt. of PNG sought United Nations funding for setting up a sustainable croc skin industry. Unlike other countries, most of the land was owned by the people. There was very little Govt. or common land. So when crocs nested, they were doing so on someone’s private land – be it swamp or garden. The idea of sustainable use and conservation had to be taken directly to the people. If the people weren’t convinced, tough luck, there was nothing anyone could do about it. The goal was to teach people that nesting female crocs were a renewable source of money and should be left alone. They lay eggs at the same site every year. So instead of killing large female crocs, people could harvest 50% of the croc nests found on their land– the hatchlings were either sold immediately to farms or kept in pens for a period of time before being sold as larger animals. Hunting of crocs for their skins was permitted but no croc with a belly skin width (from armpit to armpit across the belly) of more than 21 inches could be killed. The logic behind this stricture was that anything larger than this would be a breeding size croc capable of replenishing the croc population during the next breeding season and ought to be left alone. To back up this entire operation, the Govt. would monitor the wild croc population every year by conducting surveys on nest transects.

Twenty years later, when we visited the country, the Govt. had not done any surveys in 4 years while croc exploitation continued as before. The IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group and the Animals Committee of Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put pressure on the Govt. to uphold its side of the deal. Like every other developing country, funds were short. The Govt. was to use funds it earned as tax from the croc ranching operations to do these surveys but instead the money was probably lining a minister’s bed! Into the impasse stepped Mainland Holdings, the world’s largest croc farm with an estimated 25,000 crocs. The company, based in Lae on the northern coast, had everything to lose if the Govt. didn’t honour its part of the bargain which could lead to the IUCN and CITES banning PNG croc skins from the international market. So the company funded 50% of the cost of this year’s aerial surveys while the Govt. chipped in the rest. The results look good. There has been a steady increase (6.12% every year since monitoring began in 1982) in the number of nests. And in the year 2003 alone, the villagers of Ambunti received K 7438 (Rs. 111, 943) just from egg harvests. The Sepik is the focus of all the attention on crocs as this is the single largest area exploited.

Just to get an idea of what this industry means to the local people, I asked Alphonse how much of his annual income came from crocs. He looked me like I was from Mars (or Venus) and said he could send his kids to school for an entire year just from exploiting the croc nests on his land. Each egg is worth 7 Kina (Rs. 105) and an average nest, with about 30 eggs, is worth Rs. 3150.

There are accusations that crocs are being hunted illegally and the skins smuggled across the border to Irian Jaya where the Indonesian authorities condone it. May be this happens but the scale of illegal operations is not big enough to be worried about. The results of the aerial surveys are indicative of the relative abundance of the croc population. In this age when making such programs work in developing countries is a huge challenge, we can celebrate the fact that crocs that have had a bad rap for centuries finally have a future at least in some places on this earth. And it is no small achievement that this program has been running successfully for 20 years now. It has had its ups and downs but the basic principle – that wild croc populations can survive alongside people if the people are actively involved in their management - still holds strong.